Summoning Your Senses to Tell Your Story

Did you know that the olfactory (smell) center is highly connected to the memory center in the brain? Or that music can help unlock information in the mind that would otherwise be difficult to access? When writing your personal story or memoir, it isn’t enough to simply sit and outline the crucial events in your life. Delving into the senses can help peel back the layers of intellect and time to get to a deeper, more intensely emotional space. Folding vivid sensory details into your story also draws your reader in, helping her feel as if she is there with you. Here are some examples from literature, as well as some tips for accessing your own sense memories and descriptions.

Taste: In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust famously recounted how tasting a particular kind of cake (a madeleine) had an immediate, transporting effect to a distant memory: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin… And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.” More than 100 years later, readers are still talking about Proust’s madeleines and memories.

To evoke your own taste-related memories, here are a few things you can try:

-Page through family recipe collections or cookbooks to help conjure childhood mealtimes and holidays. Look for notes in the margins that tell a story.

-List favorite meals and foods from different time periods in your life, then write a few lines for each that describe the tastes but also delve beyond them to the cook, the guests at the table, your emotions and life events, etc.

-You might try making a particularly memory-laden recipe. The physical act of breaking the eggs, stirring the batter, etc., may very well bring back some sensations and insights about days past. Have a pen or recorder at the ready.

Touch: There are as many descriptions of tactile sensation as there are sensations — and they can be used to describe pain, pleasure, apprehension, excitement, tenderness — you name it, Here is a description of pain in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “The pains were spikes driven in the kneecap and then only darning needles and then only common ordinary safety pins, and after he had shagged along fifty more hops and jumps, filling his hand with slivers from the board fence, the prickling was like someone blowing a spray of scalding water on that leg.

To get at tactile-related memories, try these tips:

-Choose a scene from your life and focus solely on the tactile sensation. For example, if your scene is in a childhood tree house, maybe you recall the rough feel of the boards you sat on or the nail that stuck up on one of the ladder rungs. Perhaps the chill and the goosebumps on your legs when you climbed in after being out in the rain. Focus on listing adjectives that get at these kinds of sensations.

-Look back at old photos, again focusing on touch. Was your first outfit for school too tight around the collar? The prom dress exceptionally silky? What about that first time holding hands, or going to bed with your significant other?

-Try listing the three most comforting touch sensations from a selected period of your life, or, conversely, the three most uncomfortable.

Smell: Unlike the quotes offered for taste and touch above, this first quote on smell is about the genuine need for more smell descriptions in literature, from a piece by Jill McCabe Johnson in Brevity (the piece also has a fun “Does My Writing Stink” test): “Given the power of smell, you’d think authors would cram their work with scents, but we don’t. Open any literary journal and compare the instances of visual imagery with the number of references to smell. In fact, leaf through your favorite literary journals and see if you can find a reference to smell at all. Most ‘creative’ writing is oriented toward the visual — what the setting looks like, what the characters look like, what the objects at hand look like — which is important. Sight is a key tool for recognition and navigating space. Yet smell informs the very basics of our survival — eating, mating, and safety from predators — and it does so on the brain’s most fundamental level.” Something to think about, for sure.

The tricky thing about describing smell is that it often calls for a comparison. With taste, if you write, “she tasted the briny salt of the oyster,” anyone who has had an oyster will get the comparison. If you say, “the carpet felt bristly against her bare skin,” you accomplish a similar shorthand. Of course, there are many scents that are universally recognized — the scent of a lemon, for example, or that of a post-workout armpit without the benefit of deodorant. But when you get specific about scents, especially if they are not widely familiar, you will need some well thought-out words. Here is a brief example from Bruce Barcott’s Weed the People: “The smell of a grow room is the scent of transpiration, of fecund exertion. It’s the trapped sweat of a high school locker room, the funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator.” Find more examples of scent descriptions in writing here.

Try these smelly exercises:

-If some scent calls powerfully to you from the halls of memory and you want to write about its meaning, see what you can do to reproduce the experience — maybe find a bottle of Jean Naté (yes, they still make it!) that you can keep open on your desk as you write about your mom, or a hydrangea plant to evoke your grandparents’ backyard. This strategy can also do a great job of evoking memory neurologically. Dare to play with less conventional descriptions, like the “funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator” in the example above.

-List key memories you want to represent, and then across from each memory name an associated smell or two. As the start of this section notes, smell descriptions are underused. Stepping back to reframe descriptions to include scent can add a great layer for the reader.

-Try a smell quiz: ask family or friends what scents they recall from a specific event or era. You may uncover some surprises, like someone recalling the smell of diesel on a road you used to walk, or the smell of a ubiquitous brand of hair spray in the ladies’ bathroom at a favorite club.

Hearing: These words from Carson McCullers (in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) are a great example of what music can conjure: “One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best — glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.”

If vision is the most common sense invoked in literature, hearing has got to be the runner up. For more examples of the auditory in writing (in this case specifically music in writing), see this piece in Bustle.

See what you hear (well, hear what you hear) using these exercises:

-List key players in your life and work on descriptions of their voices and any audio quirks (like a super-loud sneeze or peculiar pronunciations).

-If you were designing a soundtrack for a particular era of your life, what would the songs be and why? Work on conjuring the melody and beat for the reader, as well as the feelings the songs evoked.

-If you are writing about a local setting, spend some time there — whether parking yourself at a familiar coffee shop or taking a walk through the neighborhood. Make it a mission to focus on the sounds of the place; make notes about volume, rhythm, interjections, key mechanical sounds, etc.

Vision: The eyes have it. We humans rely on vision so very much, and you don’t have to look far for a rich visual description. How’s this for compelling copy (from All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr)? “Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a tall and freckled six-year-old in Paris with rapidly deteriorating eyesight when her father sends her on a children’s tour of the museum where he works. The guide is a hunchbacked old warder hardly taller than a child himself. He raps the tip of his cane against the floor for attention, then leads his dozen charges across the gardens to the galleries. The children watch engineers use pulleys to lift a fossilized dinosaur femur. They see a stuffed giraffe in a closet, patches of hide wearing off its back. They peer into taxidermists’ drawers full of feathers and talons and glass eyeballs; they flip through two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs. Eventually they climb sixteen steps into the Gallery of Mineralogy. The guide shows them agate from Brazil and violet amethysts and a meteorite on a pedestal that he claims is as ancient as the solar system itself. Then he leads them single file down two twisting staircases and along several corridors and stops outside an iron door with a single keyhole.

Can you duplicate that lush visual aura in your memoir? Here are some ideas to get your juices flowing:

-Peer more. No doubt there are old family photographs you have seen dozens, maybe hundreds of times. But this exercise is about peering — looking super closely and intently. Maybe in that front yard picture, you are looking past your family to the siding on the house and recalling how hard Mom saved to make that happen. Maybe you are seeing the un-mown lawn that recalls how difficult that summer was. Is the clothing freshly pressed, rumpled, mismatched? Take notes!

-Do some free association matching key events or situations to colors. Maybe your first impulse is that a particular summer was “blue.” What’s behind the choice — a seaside vacation? The literal blues? What you favored in your wardrobe? Those piercing eyes of your crush?

-If you had to design the ultimate tattoo to represent a person or event, what would it be and why? Put lots of thought into it, as if you are really going to get the tattoo!

Ideally, a good story weaves all of the senses in, but of course how and where they are represented makes all of the difference. Be selective, and be sure you aim for something that can be universally understood and appreciated because your word choice is stellar.

Katherine writes mostly about nature and contemplation, but sometimes about food, books, connecting, and other creature comforts. Look her up on Contently.

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